Plant with a purpose. In London gardens where space is limited, a tree has to make a major contribution.
Consider, for example, a line of high-level pleached hornbeams to screen out a neighbour’s intrusive windows; an Amelanchier lamarckii just beyond the kitchen window to mark the seasons with spring flowers, summer fruits and autumn foliage; a group of silver-barked birch trees to light up a shady corner, or an ornamental cherry such as Prunus serrula, with glossy red bark and a fine show of blossom, to make magic in the front garden come springtime.
Spirit of the Med
Instead of a climber that takes time to cover, you might instantly transform a wall with a series of vertical green columns. Pencil cypress trees summon the spirit of the Mediterranean and, provided you keep them in containers, will take up little space, but have great presence. They are also content to stay in pots for years, as is a fig tree, another Med habitué. It will bear most fruit when planted against a warm, south-facing wall, or make a great focal point in the centre of a sunny courtyard.
Don’t shy away from a fig just because it loses its leaves in winter. That pale-barked, curvy silhouette can look equally as striking bare as when it is clothed with giant-fingered leaves. And there are the figs — as tasty as any in the Med after a good summer.
If you want an evergreen tree that will block a view or simply provide year-round foliage, you might consider strawberry tree Arbutus unedo. It is a compact tree with reddish bark, scarlet stems, shapely leaves and white, bell-shaped flowers in autumn, at the same time as the hanging, strawberry-like round red fruits. It will grow happily in a container, which restricts any tree’s growth and so widens your choices.
The inventive landscape designer Amir Schlezinger planted a windproof Scots pine on a roof terrace and added glamour to an urban courtyard with a fat-trunked tree fern — an ideal choice because tree ferns thrive in low levels of light and, uniquely, need only a thin layer of soil to do well.
My number one choice for a container tree would be the stunning Chinese red bud, Cercis chinensis Avondale, which has clusters of deep magenta flowers studding its bare branches in spring before the heart-shaped leaves emerge.
For a stylish, small evergreen tree that you can grow in a pot or in the ground, think shrub — because a tree is, after all, a shrub with a clear, woody stem. Photinia Red Robin with its scarlet young foliage, berrying pyracantha and white-blossomed Osmanthus burkwoodii are just a few suggestions, along with bay and large-leaved Portuguese laurel Prunus lusitanica, that you can gradually clip yourself to form a leafy parasol, or buy ready mop-headed.
Grown as a tree, the everyday winter-flowering shrub Viburnum tinus becomes rather less humdrum, while a multi-stemmed mahonia resembles an exotic palm, even when it isn’t laden with those extraordinary date-like trusses of navy blue berries or fragrant yellow flowers in the middle of winter.
It’s worth paying more for a show stopper that will make a pivotal feature and set the pace for the surrounding planting. A hardy palm, Trachycarpus fortunei dictates a green urban jungle, with dramatic, sword-like foliage.
An olive tree calls for the lavender, santolina and iris of its homeland. A multi-stemmed, white-barked Himalayan birch, Betula jacquemontii simply needs a scattering of white crocuses and shade-loving white martagon lilies at its feet to convert a dark and dismal corner of the garden into an enchanting woodland glade.